Most people don’t think of the High Country when it comes to maple syrup, but Jefferson resident and Ashe County native Chad Poe is wrapping up his third year of making the sweet concoction.
“This is our third season,” Poe said as he stood beside the entrance to his sugar house, which is nearing completion.
Poe bottled and sold his first batch of Sugar Tree’s Finest maple syrup in 2011.
The “sugar tree” in Sugar Tree’s Finest is named for the old Sugar Tree community, near Warrensville. Poe’s family hails from that area.
During the first year, Poe produced 10 gallons of maple syrup.
Last season, he produced 20 gallons.
This year, he’s aiming at 30.
“We’ll do about 30 gallons this year,” Poe said. “The season is just about over.”
Poe said the season usually starts around the first of February and runs through the middle of March.
Although output has tripled in the years since he started, Poe said this hasn’t been the best of years.
Syrup production, like any agricultural endeavor, is entirely dependent upon the weather.
“It’s been too cold,” Poe said. “It needs to stay above freezing during the day, and below freezing at night.”
Poe tapped 320 trees this year. He’d like to have 1,500 trees on tap in the next five or six years.
According to Poe, every region produces a syrup with its own distinct flavor.
“The dirt and soil determine the taste,” Poe said.
Sugar Tree has a slight vanilla flavor to it.
Poe got his start with a Rural Advancement Foundation International — USA (RAFI) grant of $10,000. Since then, he estimates he’s invested about $30,000 to $35,000 in the business.
The syrup-making process begins with the process of “tapping” maple trees by boring holes into the sides and then siphoning out the sap as it makes its way through the trunk. The sap slowly flows into buckets and once the buckets are filled, the labor begins.
The sap is boiled down in a wood-fired evaporator. From there, the concentrated syrup goes into a propane-run finisher and is then filtered.
Once the filtering process is complete, the syrup is bottled.
To some in the High Country, making molasses and syrup is a hobby but to Poe, it’s become a way of life.
During syrup season, he’ll head out to the syrup house around 5 a.m., fire-up the wood-fired evaporator and keep it running until around 9 or 10 p.m. Some days he works past midnight, well into the early morning hours.
Poe installed a television in his syrup house to relieve him from boredom and possibly falling asleep on the job, on those nights when he’s burning the midnight oil.
When syrup season ends, Poe shuts down his operation, closes up the syrup house and preps for warmer weather and a summer of grading.
“I do (make) molasses in the fall, maple syrup during the winter and grading work during the summer,” Poe said.
While maple syrup production is often thought of as being unique to New England and Canada, Poe believes that like molasses, it too used to be made here in the High Country. That could help explain why so many places in the region are associated with “sugar,” like Sugar Grove in Watauga County and of course, Sugar Tree Road and Sugar Tree Branch here in Ashe Co.
Poe isn’t the only one producing maple syrup in the county. He knows of three or four others who are doing the same, one of whom has a similar operation and sells his product.
Poe estimates he sells 75 percent of his syrup from home. The rest is sold in stores.
This year he’s already sold 25 gallons.
“It’s gone pretty quick,” Poe said. “It’s not hard to get rid of.”
As the season draws to a close, Poe said he’s tired and ready to shut down the sugar house, but he was quick to say that he knows he’ll be excited at the start of next year’s season.
Alan Bulluck can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @albulluck.